Employees are calling for better air quality

Not only are employees calling for better indoor quality, but a Pretoria High Court last month confirmed that South Africans have a constitutional right to an environment that isn’t harmful to their health and for clean air. Last week, many Highvelders woke to the strong smell of sulphur in the air which proves just how far we still have to go for many to enjoy clean air.

In her judgment, Judge Collis stated: “If air quality fails to meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“National Standards”), it is a prima facie violation of the right. When failure to meet air quality standards persists over a long period of time, there is a greater likelihood that the health, well-being and human rights of the people subjected to that air are being threatened and infringed upon.”1

Additionally, there is an expectation from employees, and the question is being asked, “what is our employer doing in the workplace to ensure high standards of air quality to ensure the risk of airborne transmission is lowered?”

“Coronavirus shone a spotlight on the state of our poor indoor air quality, but the problem of low-quality indoor air is not new,” says Dumisani Simelane, Sales and Marketing Director for Rentokil Initial Sub-Saharan Africa.

The media is currently full of stories highlighting how poor the quality of indoor air has become. In the past, one of the easy low-tech methods to improve the indoor air quality was to open windows to allow “fresh air” to ventilate closed spaces. However, as the media and many reports over time have proved, even this has become problematic and inaccurate.

The world and South Africa are facing an air crisis, and the numbers are staggering, confirms Simelane. Poor indoor air quality is responsible for 3.8 million deaths globally while air pollution kills 6.7 million people a year.

However, if it can be called a silver lining, the pandemic has highlighted the issue and people realize that indoor air and resulting health problems are worrying factors, both in the workplace and at home. In a recent worldwide Attitudinal Hygiene Survey by Rentokil Initial, nearly 90% of South Africans rated the quality of indoor air as important to their health.

Recycled air and common indoor air pollutants found in offices can reduce an employee’s ability to respond to the day-to-day demands of their work, leading to fatigue, headaches, and diminished mental and physical performance. Carbon monoxide concentrations in the workplace can cause fatigue, reduced brain function, and impaired vision and coordination.  Poor indoor air quality has been shown to reduce office performance by between 6–9%.

In the Attitudinal Hygiene Survey, 65% of respondents said that businesses and employers should do more to provide safe air. 84% felt that it was important that employers prioritised creating a safe workplace.

This too is mandated in The Occupational Health and Safety Act of South Africa, 1993, which requires the employer to bring about and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a work environment that is safe and without risk to the health of the workers2. Businesses and employers would be well advised to address the problem of indoor air quality.

The adage of opening windows in no longer a solution but, in a Catch-22 situation, now can actually increase the risk of airborne transmission of common viruses. The solution and focus needs to move towards integrated hygiene strategies! Any hygiene strategy should tackle all three of the elements that cause cross-contamination, namely, person-to-person, surface-to-person and air-to-person contact. Both the consumer and employee require demonstrable, visible reassurance that all the issues are being dealt with.

One solution is noticeable air filtration units that can filter impure air, neutralise toxic air and decontaminate infected air. Placed in suitable locations for maximum efficacy, they will not only improve comfort levels, concentration levels and reduce sickness and absenteeism, but will also provide visual reassurance. This is one way that companies can easily demonstrate their commitment of the integrated hygiene strategy to customers and employees.

“Would you drink visibly contaminated water or water that has strong odour to it?” concludes Simelane. “We all know the answer to that one! Why then should we be breathing contaminated or smelly air when it’s our constitutional right to clean air?

It is encouraging that we are seeing a marked shift in requests for information on air quality and for solutions to improve air quality.”

For more information on Initial, visit https://www.initial.co.za/

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  1. https://cer.org.za/news/major-court-victory-for-communities-fighting-air-pollution-in-mpumalanga-highveld
  2. https://www.labour.gov.za/DocumentCenter/Publications/Occupational%20Health%20and%20Safety/What%20every%20worker%20should%20know%20about%20health%20and%20safety%20at%20work.pdf
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